Depending on who you ask, the American higher education system is either broken, or rapidly transitioning. We hear the tragic stories of star students becoming baristas, or carpenters who will never pay off their debts for decades. At the same time, we hear the bitter, often anti-intellectual counter-arguments that over-educated idealists are, ironically, just too stupid to go into more practical fields with more job opportunities. This dynamic has been going on long enough that the institutions of higher education have adapted to it, and got in the game. Rather than educating graduates and sending them to cafe jobs with doctorates, the university system has adapted their business model to exploit the market saturation they created: now doctors of philosophy can stay in the ivory tower, they just won’t earn much more than their barista counterparts.
These tragedies are not exclusive to academia or the educated classes of America. State workers, office paper pushers, the service sector, creative professionals, every job is becoming more precarious as capitalism goes through either its death throes, or a fundamental transformation, depending on which pseudo-economist you ask. The reason we hear more about adjuncts and hopeless grads is not a question of severity. The tragedy of wasted educations really does not compare to the tragedies of the under-employed cycling from low wage work to welfare to prison and back again. However, adjuncts are more articulate about it. They are better equipped to appeal to a lost idealism, or universal values while lodging their gripes. Indeed, they are so good at it, that they often believe their own hype, which does add a classic flavor to their tragic tales.
Rachel Riederer’s recent article for Guernica “The Teaching Class” is typical. Riederer looks at it not just from a “woe is us” adjunct’s perspective, but also a consumer rights perspective. Overworked, underpaid adjuncts cannot possibly provide as good an education as full professors, yet the students are paying more than ever for their degrees. Riederer mourns the shift from education to credentialism, and observes the semantic peculiarity of adjuncts teaching the majority of classes in many university systems. She points out that the word adjunct, “actually means ‘a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part,’” and asks “If teaching is a supplementary rather than essential part of college, why go?”
The answer to this question for many students is obvious. We went to school because our parents, prospective employers, and our peers all wanted us to. Some of us enrolled with high minded ideals of learning something, sure, but we almost all did so in an environment of pressure and encouragement based on an unquestioned belief that higher education is a key to success. We believe that because for many of us it is true. A degree does help you get a job. Even if that job has nothing to do with anything you learned in class.
My degree in political science paid off in the form of a string of boring office temp jobs over the last ten years. None of these jobs required that I know anything I learned in school. My degree helped me get these jobs for one reason: because the hiring people believed in credentialism. On one level, that belief reflects simple prejudice – HR secretaries might sort resumes into three piles: college degree, high school diploma or equivalent, and formerly incarcerated. The first stack gets called for interviews, the second stack kept as back-up and the third stack filed directly into the trash.
My question is, what is behind this prejudice? Bureaucratic practices are, taken individually often irrational or lazy, but when they come together to form a trend, or set of best practices, there is some logic behind them, something that says “this works, we’re going to do it again.” So, what does my degree really mean to prospective employers?
In the public imagination my Political Science degree means that I learned stuff about political science. In reality, I did learn stuff about political science. I can tell you the difference between parliamentary and single district democracies, I can tell you all kinds of fun things about foreign policy, nuclear war, the European Union, and why US elections are set up to work the way they do. In the context of temp work, my degree doesn’t have anything to do with knowledge or ability. A fifth grader or a trained chimp could do my temp jobs, if you could get them to sit in the chair long enough.
And that is the real value of my college degree. The staffing companies want to hire people with a degree because degrees indicate that I have bought in to the system. I have debt, and therefore need the income, and I know how to follow instructions. All my boss needs to know is that I will sit in this chair doing their inane busy work without getting belligerent or openly causing problems. The study habits of busywork papers and reading assignments trained me to handle boredom, and the debt payments keep me desperate enough to depend on a paycheck, however meager it may be. I am better qualified than my non-degree holding competition only because I have middle class status to lose, and know how to superficially ingratiate myself to arbitrary small-minded bosses.
At the same time, the employers increasingly depend on temps. Just as “adjunct” now means “essential” the word “temp” now means “permanent”. I’ve had single placements that lasted years, and my managers complained about the difficulty of getting good people to stick around when I left. Both “adjunct” and “temp” are euphemisms for the same thing: “people we don’t have to pay as well, or provide with benefits or job security.” Riederer’s adjuncting and my temp work both erode standards of the labor markets we’re operating in. If my coworkers had any knowledge of labor history or notions of worker solidarity, they would know another word for what she and I do: “scabbing.” Professors should know better. Maybe they’re just more polite, or more deeply bought in than I.
Of course, even if we were recognized as scabs, there are too many temps and adjuncts to run out. The corporations have sprung a whole new context on us where neo-scabbery is commonplace and accepted. Turning that culture shift back would take massive organizing. Imagining a strike organized by temp workers or adjuncts is nonsensical. The very nature of our position is to be flexible and easily replaced. Our whole society is in a long cycle crisis of too much surplus population. Capitalism has outgrown any use for humanity.
When organized factory workers find themselves in circumstances where they can’t pull off a full strike, they’ll instead adopt a tactic known as the slow down strike. Stay on the job, but do as little as you can as slowly as possible. This has been the approach I’ve taken to every temp job I’ve had since I realized what I could get away with two weeks into my first placement. I am on the clock in a windowless room writing this right now. I’ve done maybe twenty minutes of work for my employer over the three hours I’ve been here today.
So, maybe adjuncts should do the same. Teach to the evals, make things fun and easy. Students might deserve better education than that, according to some romantic idealism, but most of them don’t actually want it, or need it. They just need the stupid pieces of paper. When an adjunct makes it easy to pass a class, they are actually training the students in the skills most needed to succeed in the new American economy. The most valuable skill I employ at my job is the art of slacking. There’s no chance that I’ll be rewarded for excellence (excellence in the inane tasks I do with my college degree is an oxymoron). So, I can’t advance or make my lot in life better by earning more money. Instead, my only shot at happiness is to minimize stress, pretend I’m working hard while tactfully reducing my responsibilities and get good at entertaining myself while on the clock.
That is the work environment college is actually preparing people for. We live in a world of exploitation and bullshit. The people who suffer most are those who believe the hype and strive excel, the sooner students realize this, the better.
*This is a pseudonym used to protect the author’s identity.